We’re on the verge of heavy hitter season, and what a busy year it’s going to be. It seems as though the last few months has been spent giving the indie games a lot of time in the proverbial spotlight, but now, the bigger budget titles are starting to line up. This week alone we’re seeing an influx of heavily anticipated games such as PES 2019, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Naruto, and the reason you’re all here, Strange Brigade. That’s not to mention the games that will swiftly follow on, though I must say that I fear Strange Brigade wont get quite as much attention as it deserves, which would be a huge shame.
I’ll admit that at first, I was slightly skeptical about it myself. However, after even just an hour of play, I’ve struggled to put it down, or indeed stop thinking about it when I have done. The premise of the game tells the story of a Witch Queen, Seteki, who was buried in a secret tomb long ago by her people. Fast forward four thousand years to present in-game day (1930s), and Seteki has risen once again and has seemingly brought armies of supernatural beings along for the ride. Enter the Strange Brigade, a group of diverse characters banding together to put an end to the nefarious queen, once and for all.
It’s your run of the mill plot, jam-packed with silliness, humor and charm, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That very silliness is present throughout the entirety of play, showcased at every turn to relay Strange Brigade’s charismatic personality. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t take itself seriously, on the contrary, this is by all means a serious shooter, and one unlike any other game in recent memory. Picture Indiana Jones, The Mummy (Brendan Fraser’s flick, not that crappy Tom Cruise movie) and sprinkle in some Left 4 Dead and Zombie Army Trilogy, and you’ll have a rough idea as to what to expect.
That’s the sort of vibe I was clinging onto during my time with the game. The aim of the game is relatively simple to digest. You and up to three other players will dive into a healthy serving of levels as you embark on an adventure to put Seketi back in her place. Starting out, players will be able to select from one of the aforementioned four characters; Nalangu – a female Maasai warrior, Archimedes – an archaeologist and Oxford scholar, Frank – a marksman soldier, and Gracie – an engineer and all-round bad-ass. It’s an interesting mix to say the least, but a mix that fits perfectly into the theme and spirit of the game.
Using a mobile Airship as their primary base of operations, the Strange Brigade move from location to location to fulfill objectives given to them by the Department of Antiquities. Here, you’ll be able to customize your loadout and browse some extras before you dive into each level. The gameplay loop typically has you exploring each exotic locale, killing hordes of enemies and grabbing sweet loot along the way. Strange Brigade’s levels are packed with treasures and collectibles, lending the game a good degree of replay value as a result, and thanks to how fun it is to play, revisiting old levels never feels like a chore.
Enemies will come at you thick and fast as progress is made, oftentimes at a pace that would make Serious Sam proud. Whether it’s mummies, zombies, huge scorpions or even towering Anubis statues, the general rule of thumb is that if it looks ancient and it’s moving, shoot the bastard. I quite enjoyed the enemy variation here and although many foes are predictable by design, there was never a time that I wasn’t having fun. The same can be said about the few boss encounters that are peppered throughout, offering a decent challenge and a means to break up the pace every now and again.
When you’re not killing the armies of the ancient undead, you’ll be seeking out gold, relics, collectibles and more. Each level in Strange Brigade has been designed in such a way to emphasize, and even encourage, exploration. This not only works well during combat, but allows either solo players or a full team of four to scout each area for a tactical advantage, as well as, indeed, functioning as a means to hide those previously alluded to items across the sprawling maps. Let me tell you, I searched high and low on each level for every item listed on the pause screen, and for the life of me, I’ve yet to uncover them all.
This is especially true for the items that you have to shoot to collect, such as each of the six miniature cat statues that are tucked in some very hard-to-spot locations. Finding all of them will grant access to a secret treasure-filled chamber at the end of each run. Those relics mentioned above are also littered across each stage and can either be found in treasure chests, or on the back of an enemy that’s hording gold and is generally running away from you at high-speed – Golden Axe thief-like. If you’re fortunate enough to collect all relics on any given level, you’ll be rewarded with a new amulet super-ability.
Each character in the Strange Brigade has their own unique powers assigned to the B button once charged. Charging these powers require the souls of the enemies that you defeat, which can be collected via harvesting them or walking into them. Once maxed, these powers come in handy and vary magnificently; raising undead minions to fight by your side, slamming into the floor and creating a whirl of fire to damage nearby foes, power slamming an unsuspecting enemy into a group of incoming enemies, and so forth. There’s no shortage of interesting ways to best your opposition from start to end.
You’ll be rewarded with gold for killing the undead too, which is a currency that can be earned via rummaging through boxes, chests, and (for some reason) can also be found just laying around the environment as if every person and their dog in the 30s had cash to spare. This gold is used to purchase new weaponry, grenades and other helpful loadout-builds. The weapon variation that you can buy into tends to play it safe, ranging from pistols, bolt-action rifles and semi-automatics. Gems can be applied to weaponry to offer additional buffs such as bullets that freeze foes, replenish your health and other neat tidbits.
However, to spice up the adventure, special weapon crates are present throughout each stage to offer that extra kick. Opening these crates costs a fraction of your gold, but the weaponry that you can pull from these crates are often well worth the investment. These randomly rolled weapons are not accessible in the loadout section and for good reason too, because they’re typically overpowered. With that said, Rebellion has found a nice balance here by limiting the ammo of each of these weapons and making them single use. It’s a bit disheartening to put down a godly sniper rifle or the flamethrower once ammo has been depleted, but it’s a design choice that sits well with the pace of the game nevertheless.
I should point out that the focus selling-point of Strange Brigade is that it’s designed to be played cooperatively, however, I had no trouble at all playing solo – fluctuating difficulties to the side. Each and every map brings with it a solid blend of varying mechanics, ensuring that any sense of repetition is kept firmly at bay. Hell, even select parts of the levels can be used to your advantage through the use of environmental hazards and traps. Many of these can be manipulated by shooting a pressure pad, which will activate spikes, guillotine, flames and so on. Be careful though, as enemies have a tendency of using these against you, too.
Outside of the game’s combat and its many collectibles, Strange Brigade throws in some very intricate puzzles to overcome quite frequently. These vary from shooting hieroglyphs in the correct sequence, standing on ancient pressure plates, utilizing laser beams to activate crystals and other wildly interesting mechanics. I’ll credit Rebellion for this, these puzzles often had me scratching my head. What I wont credit them for is the occasional jump scare that’s been slyly implemented. Many a times did I shit myself at something I should have seen a mile off. Look forward to that, people, look forward to that.
When all is said and done, Strange Brigade is easily one of the most interesting games of its kind to hit Xbox One in a good while, and certainly stands as Rebellion’s finest work to date. My only gripe with the game sits with some awkward character animation, mostly due to their stiff facial expressions. This, on the other hand, is easy to overlook in the face of everything that Strange Brigade gets right on the visual front. The game’s locations are lush, well detailed, wonderfully designed and vast. The same can indeed be said about the design of each and every enemy, encounter and effect.
Strange Brigade does a remarkable job at relaying its adventurous, humorous vibe throughout. This is all upheld by a quirky narrator that comes across as though he’s just fell out of a Fawlty Towers episode. The narrator brings a great deal of comedy to the experience, keeping it grounded and on-track in the midst of all the carnage and treasure seeking that players will lose hours of time sinking into. He’ll also voice over pretty much all of your actions and progression, and will even get grumpy if you stand idle for too long or ask you for a cup of tea when you pause the game.
It’s moments like this, and there’s many of them, that gives the game its comedic value. The cast of characters do indeed speak too and will react to their situations or surroundings accordingly. On this front, the writing and the voice work is top-notch, despite a few one-liners that come across a bit cringe-like. Still, the bottom line in all of this is that Strange Brigade’s lengthy campaign is one that’s well worth your time and attention. Though, even when you’re done there and you’ve mopped up all collectibles, there’s additional modes on offer for you to dive onto to extend your playtime further; Score Attack and Horde.
Much as you would expect, Score Attack throws you into spliced campaign levels and requires that you obtain a high score by making the most of the mission structure, together with your firepower. Some neat extras and refinements prevent this mode from feeling tacked on, and I can see this being the main port of call for many players post-completion. Horde mode, on the other hand, is your more traditional affair. Here, players are tasked with taking on waves upon waves of enemies, earning gold to periodically spend on better weaponry and/or more environmental space (hopefully) in return for more goodies.
It’s more akin to (let’s say) Call of Duty’s Zombies mode in regards to its depth, which is huge a compliment, by the by. I dare say that there’s tens of hours worth of content to enjoy here, that is, if you collect everything and make the most of each mode. The game’s performance is spot on and doesn’t buckle under the weight of all of that on-screen action, regardless as to how crowded it can get. It helps that it handles wonderfully, too, with controls that are well mapped, responsive and fluid. I’ve put several hours into Strange Brigade so far, and I don’t plan on putting it down anytime soon.
Strange Brigade is a treat. One that’s jam-packed with action, charm and personality. Everything from the game’s multi-branching level design, to its impressive variety of enemies and weaponry, rarely fails to excite. The game’s mashup of heavy combat, puzzle solving and collectible-seeking, makes for a gorgeously detailed adventure that’s constantly fun and dynamic. This is among Rebellion’s finest work to date.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.